The King of the Blues died last week. He was 89.
Whenever somebody in the public eye dies these days, the tributes spill forth so readily. With Twitter making it very easy now for newspapers to fill column inches with quotes from every Tom, Dick and Harry, it often seems artificial, as though half these people are more concerned with being seen to be upset, rather than feeling any real sorrow. They throw around platitudes that make you cringe; everyone’s a “legend” now, apparently. But B.B. was a legend. He was a hero. He seemed to be a gentleman, too. One that oozed charisma and, for all his fame and fortune, somehow stayed humble and hungry. A consummate professional, someone who lived life with a smile on his face, whose jovial personality made audiences feel at ease in the presence of a damn fine musician.
He said he just wanted to make people happy – and that he did.
The tributes to him since his death on Thursday have been so genuine and touching. Little wonder when you find out more about the life he led and remind yourself how he kept on performing as he pushed 90, complete with his trademark Gibson guitar, sparkly jacket and always with a wide, beaming smile on his face.
From those who knew him best and those who simply enjoyed listening to him play and sing, they spoke of his immediately recognisable guitar tone, of course, the perfect notes, and how they wanted to be like him, as well as the warmth he exuded, which really does come through both on stage and in interviews. We know how his guitars came to be called Lucille, of his love for Sinatra, that many of those who went to see U2 after Rattle and Hum, at that time arguably the biggest band on the planet, quickly realised that the brightest star shining from the stage was B.B. during ‘When Love Comes to Town’.
You might recall David telling Jools Holland on one of his Hootenanny shows that his New Year’s Resolution for 1998 was “to keep practicing until I get as good as B.B.” (Don’t worry, he still is.)
Born Riley B. King in September 1925, on a cotton plantation near the town of Itta Bena, Mississippi, he lived alone in a shack at the age of nine, toiling as a farmhand to repay the debts of his dead mother and grandmother for four long, lonely years. Just imagine that.
As “The Beale Street Blues Boy” – rather sensibly shortened to B.B. – his first hit was ‘3 O’Clock Blues’, which topped the Billboard Rhythm and Blues charts in 1952, staying there for five weeks.
The numbers from then on are astounding: the 42 studio albums, from 1956’s Singin’ the Blues to One Kind Favor in 2008; the 15 Grammy Awards (to think he received the Lifetime Achievement Award in 1987, the same year he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – that’s nearly thirty years ago – speaks volumes about how hard he has worked since then); the hundreds of live performances each year (a pilot, he flew himself to many of them and made a point of regularly performing in prisons) – an estimated 15,000-plus live gigs in all.
There have been too many notable collaborations to list them all here, but it would be nice to find out which are your favourites. I’d also love to know if you saw him perform or ever met him.
A film of his life, called The Life of Riley, came out in 2012 to great critical acclaim. Have you seen it?
After picking cotton for 75 cents a day, singing gospel on street corners for small change, witnessing a lynching and living through racial segregation, the great-grandson of a slave influenced the very finest white musicians, so captivated by the Delta and Chicago blues, whose fondness for him warms the heart. He had a remarkable life.